Local News

Sitka schools look to state to fund new standards

As it develops its list of legislative priorities, the Sitka School Board may back a plan to upgrade the Vilandre Field to equal Moller Park, in order to resolve a Title IX complaint. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

As it develops its list of legislative priorities, the Sitka School Board may back a plan to upgrade the Vilandre Field to equal Moller Park, in order to resolve a Title IX complaint. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Sitka School Board will consider asking the state legislature for almost $2-million in the coming year, in order to help the district meet newly-adopted standards.

The board convened in its first regular session of the new school year Monday night (8-25-14). Meeting state education standards is the first of several costly priorities in Sitka’s schools this year.

Schools in Sitka over the last year have been working toward transitioning to the new Alaska Standards — which parallel the national Common Core — but implementation is slow. Shifting to new standards requires both teacher training and instructional materials, and the expenses can be high.

Last year, for instance, the district took $212,000 out of its savings account to implement the new standards in kindergarten-through-8th grade Math — and that doesn’t include the salary of a math implementation coach.

Superintendent Mary Wegner says that multiplying the cost of K-8 math across all grades — and across Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies — equals a sizeable bill. $1.6-million. A much larger bill than the quarter-million dollar estimate that was discussed in budget meetings last spring.

“The $1.6-million was for all four subject areas. So we really haven’t been talking about all four subject areas yet. We came up with an estimate of a little over $400,000 per subject area. When you add them up you get the $1.6-million.”

On top of that, the state Board of Education last year adopted new requirements for teacher evaluations which will — for the first time — take student performance into consideration. The district has looked at a couple of strategies for evaluations — in-house teacher training systems, really — that will cost money to implement. Wegner estimates about $250,000.

All told, that’s almost $2-million, or 10-percent of the district’s budget, targeted at improving student achievement. Short of going to the legislature, finding that amount of money within the district would come at a steep — not to mention ironic — price. The board’s draft priority list discusses “incurring substantial reductions in force and elimination of programs (foreign language, extracurricular activities, music, art, and reading and math tutors)” in order to pay for these new, state-mandated efforts at boosting student achievement.

And dipping into the district’s savings isn’t sustainable. There’s seldom more than $500,000 in reserves. Wegner says there are no shortcuts, no hidden economies, in meeting the $2-million expense. And no plan B other than the state.

“That is the cost, and so far, plan B has been to come from our budget reserves.”

Other items on the district’s list of legislative priorities include supporting a statewide effort to put a digital device in the hands of every one of Alaska’s 129,000 students. It’s called the Alaska 1:1 Digital Learning Initiative. The total package runs to $3.9-million. The district is also asking for less glamorous items like new playground equipment for Keet Gooshi Heen at $225,000, and refurbishing that school’s covered play area at $384,000.

And then there was this, pointed out by board president Lon Garrison:

“Obviously, there’s the 1,000-lb gorilla in the room, which is improvements for a softball field.”

In July, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights notified the Sitka School District that it had received a gender discrimination complaint regarding the inequitable use of Moller Park between baseball and softball. In 2012 the city-owned field was completely rebuilt, with artificial turf and lights, at a cost of $2.6-million.

In response, the city has included on its legislative priority list $1.5-million in renovations of Vilandre Field, next to Blatchley Middle School, for use by softball and Little League.

School board members liked the idea of supporting the city’s request. Tim Fulton, however, recommended that the city’s request for Vilandre Field be increased to include lights. “It seems like that’s where this is headed,” he said.

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